Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Great Times are Waiting, Shivers up the Spine 5 Days in NYC: Leslie Kaminoff, Tom Myers, Robert Mahon and IDP

I opened the window from my hotel room to a warm chinook blowing in to Manhattan's lower east side. Thank god the window actually opens, I thought. I could see the alley below, announcing a small market, and folks were in and out of the passageway all day long. I had planned to get a good amount of writing done; but there was no internet access at the hotel...or at least not an internet that could stay connected consistently. The front desk looked at me quizzically when I mentioned it; but I knew from his blank, rapid blinking, he was well aware of the problem.

One small room, with a window, and a squirrel that was eating the floorboards underneath me...a shared bathroom down the hall, and walls paper thin so that I could hear the writer rooming next to me talking about her next screenwriting project. It wasn't much; but it was New York City, and I was within spitting distance of everything I needed. So, apart from seeing bands at CMJ, I was going to make it my business to get out and do as much yoga as possible.

This is my recap of Yoga NYC; but it also gives you a bit of a taste of what's upcoming on Shivers Up the Spine heading into the cold season.

O n Thursday afternoon I met with Robert Mahon, whose photographs had formed the basis for the post, "Into the Slipstream; The Yoga of Chance in the Photography of Robert Mahon". We had lunch and chocolate in Chelsea; paid quick homage to the Chelsea hotel; spent hours lounging on the lawn chairs of the Episcopal Seminary Gardens in the warm sunlight of autumn. We never made it to MOMA; but for any of you out there curious about seeing more of Robert's work in the flesh, you can go to the AKA hotel Times Square; and on every single floor is one of a series of stunning photographs of New York City's most recognizable landmarks entitled, "The Liberty Series". Of these, the photos of Lady Liberty remain with me; her form under tender veils of reconstruction scaffolding, a vaulting iceberg in repair over black sheets of water. The images are striking enough to make you want to ride the elevator up and down all day. This is an excerpt from the Hotel's guide to the series:
AKA Times Square is pleased to present Liberty Series, a selection of 12 photographs by Robert Mahon, on display in the hallways facing the elevators and in the fitness center.  Printed in 2010 by the artist especially for AKA, the original photographs of the Statue of Liberty, World Trade Center, Ellis Island, and the New York Harbor were taken by the artist in 1983 and 1984.  Many of these archetypal images having the theme of arrival and departure are aerial photos taken from a helicopter flying close to the Statue of Liberty.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

There is No Such Thing as a Dead End: Two Burmese Monks Describe the Saffron Revolution

(U Pyinya Zawta, All Burma Monks Alliance)
"hatred is never appeased by hatred...only lovingkindness"
(U Pyinya Zawta, Burma, Buddhism and Non Violent Revolt, University of Toronto, Oct 18, 2010)

What makes a movement move? This is a question that has been with me ever since I attended the talk Buddism, Burma and Non-Violent Revolt at University of Toronto last week. I mean, it's an oddity that movements happen at all; since most of them begin with a dedication to the impossible, the implausible, and sometimes, what many would call, "the lost cause".

There was a hum of fluorescents that ran through the room on the 7th floor of University of Toronto's Oise building last Monday. The "Peace Lounge" sounded bright, animated by shuffling of feet, paper handouts, and pamphlets rustling...microphones humming, clipping, and then petering out. Across to my right were two batik room dividers, and then a row of volunteers flanked by tables of books and petition papers. As people took their seats, the cyclopic eye of a camera turned to a tall figure standing in front of a wall of windows.

 "Hello, it's good to see so many of you out".

Michael Stone delivered a warm welcome to the attentive group of 100 or so gathered in support of the event. Co-presented by Centre of Gravity Sangha, Amnesty International and Shambhala Toronto, the evening featured two Burmese monks, U Pyinya Zawta and U Agga Nyana who were invited to tell their stories about their experience in the Saffron Revolution of 2007. In addition to detailing the events associated the uprising, the event was intended to expose the continued plight of Buddhist monks amidst the sustained brutality of the military regime in Burma, as well as the difficulties faced by monks who have relocated to North America.

Thanking those assembled, Michael talked about the importance of getting real people and communities involved. He cited Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in the New Yorker entitled, "Small Change: the Revolution will not be Tweeted", in order to illustrate a growing sense of the shortcomings of social networks as pertains to disciplined, social engagement.  With a nod to Bernie Glassman and the First Symposium of Engaged Buddhism this past summer, he also cited the importance of the evening's talk as part of a larger dialogue on Buddhism as social action on North American soil; and reminded people that getting movements to "move" really depends on interdependence. On the heels of this brief introduction, Myanmar Coordinator for Amnesty International, Brian John, articulated a synopsis of the political context in Burma, and outlined Amnesty's determination to increase public awareness of the current military regime's long list of human rights violations.

These very human rights violations were detailed through the first-person narrative of two Burmese monks, as all eyes turned to  to U Pinya Zawta and U Agga Nyana. Both spoke of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the military regime with a curious combination of softspoken intelligence and straight-talk. In a particularly moving moment, U Agga Nyana described the lasting influence of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's opposition politician, who is still living under house arrest, in saying:

"She is still in our hearts".

Monday, October 11, 2010

Transnational Yoga Part 1: An Interview with Blogger Roseanne Harvey of "It's all Yoga Baby"

The community portals have been hacked. Advertisers have your home number; and now they're calling at dinnertime. Yoga blogs, once the independent voice of an online community, are now the locus of increased corporate sensibility; your discussions will be interrupted for "these special messages from our sponsors".  In this 3-part series on Transnational Yoga,  I interview 3 writers with regard to their own research on yoga and commodity, the practices that comprise contemporary yoga, and the origins of our asana-heavy, posturific, yoga culture.

I went into this interview assuming I would write a piece about what it means to be a blogger; a critical, independent voice in the yoga community, armed with the wit and candour to observe the fascinating negotiations that are happening between yoga and capitalism the world over. After all, my interview had been scheduled for over a month, and it was with the fabulous blogger, Roseanne Harvey, of It's All Yoga Baby.

Kamloops-raised, Roseanne Harvey came to yoga at University, originally as an attempt to manage the stress of a busy workload. Over time, however, the practice took root; and Harvey found herself settling in at Yasodhara Ashram, B.C, upon the advice of close friends. By the end of her stay, Harvey had found a deepened passion for yoga, and a new community newsletter to write for the ashram. Eventually, Ascent Magazine, an independent, not-for-profit publication dedicated to spirituality and yoga, was born through Yasodhara; and Roseanne Harvey was at the helm of its editorial functions. The publication ran from 1999 through 2009; and, when the much-loved magazine closed it doors, Harvey turned her attention to blogging.

In our interview, Harvey talks about the importance of resisting corporate interest, and how she hopes to serve as an example of an independent, anti-commercial voice for the yoga community; and, how yoga partnerships with corporations that propogate an idealized vision of the female body are problematic. Yet, by the time I reached her, late last week, Roseanne Harvey had signed a deal with Wonderbra for her blog. Furthermore, in our conversation, she details the contractual restrictions on her blogging voice inherent in this relationship.

Blogging for Yoga, Interview with Roseanne Harvey:

"I realized that I resist the commercialization of yoga because I resist the commercialization of everything. I don’t believe that yoga deserves special treatment; I believe that the commercialization of everything, from food to sex to art, is unhealthy for people and our world."
("WSJ Stefanie Syman on how Yoga Sold Out", from It's all Yoga Baby, by Roseanne Harvey) 

 PT: So Roseanne, you started a blog, would be a year and a half ago now?

Roseanne Harvey: Yeah I started the blog after the magazine closed. While I was at the magazine I was responsible for the magazine's blog, along with so many other things with editing etc. So it was always a pain in the butt. I always hated doing it. I had to handle that as well as so many other things. But then once when the magazine closed it was much easier as an independent person, to publish a blog, than to publish a magazine. So I just needed a space where i could continue to explore yoga and maintain the connections that I made while i was at the magazine; and, do it in a place where it was on my own terms, where i wasn't representing anyone else's interests.

PT: Do you find that a lot of yoga conversations, whether they happen through blogs, books or magazines, have been co-opted by something, or somebody else's interests?

Roseanne Harvey:  I find that in the blogging community it's not co-opted. There's a very independent spirit within the blogging community; and most people who blog do it for themselves. Most of them are yoga teachers or just yoga practitioners so they're not representing any other system or whatever. And in terms of being co-opted, I mean yeah, there's no kind of formalized system to really co-opt these voices, other than blogs like the Yoga Journal blogs and some others...If a writer/blogger is really ambitious and wants to contribute to the Huffington Post, then, sure it's been co-opted. But generally, I find there's a lot of independent voices.

PT: What would you say the difference is between writing for the the Yoga Journal blogs, or Huffington Post, and being an independent blogger?

Roseanne Harvey: Yeah, it's hard to say, because I haven't had the experience of writing for Yoga Journal etc; but I think that there's a different mandate. And Yoga Journal has several high profile teachers that are currently blogging for them and yeah, most of the writing I see is not critical and analytical or whatever. It tends to be experiential and anecdotal. 

(photo by erin vosti lal)

PT: Ok. I guess that leads into my question about magazine culture re. yoga in North America. What do you think of the kind of yoga advertising we're seeing in magazines? Where is it all going?

Roseanne Harvey:  Uh hmm... Yeah, well i think that a communication vehicle is good for the yoga community. I think that it's good to provide accessible information for people who are simply curious. And all magazines are fuelled by advertising because that's how the industry works.  In terms of yoga magazines I think that they're an essential part of the evolution of yoga in North America. If we look at yoga magazines now, there are only two I can think of in print right now; Yoga Journal and Yoga International, and then a handful of other spirituality magazines. But what I see there is not a lot of diversity, a big emphasis on the physical aspects of the practice, a certain kind of representation that's soft-focus, fuzzy, women-in-spandex, lotus flowers and candles.. this very idealized image of spiritual practice...which doesn't always represent the whole story of the practice.